According to Drop the I-Word activists, referring to an illegal immigrant as illegal is racist, dehumanizing, contrary to accepted law, and detrimental to reasoned debate on the immigration issue. However, if there were but one hurdle to logical discourse on immigration, it would be this kind of nonsense. Illegal doesn't indict an alien's character; it identifies their status.
Illegal means contrary to law or statute, or forbidden by same. Collins Dictionary defines illegal as a person who has entered a country illegally. Under these terms, anyone of any race, religion, ethnicity, or background can illegally immigrate, thereby becoming an illegal immigrant.
Genuine racial epithets identify persons or peoples according to skin color or heritage, not actions. For example, the "n-word" is a derogatory phrase used exclusively toward black Americans without regard to their character or status. The same can be said for the "c-word" in regard to Asians and the "s-word" for Hispanics. Each term identifies and denigrates based on nothing more than skin tone or ethnic heritage.
Illegal describes a person who has violated accepted legal procedures, nothing more. Thus illegal in terms of citizenship identifies someone whose immigration has violated the law. I'll go as far as saying "illegal" is completely race-neutral. Germans, Chinese, Kuwaitis, Mexicans, and Americans can all become illegals simply by moving from one country to another without navigating the appropriate bureaucratic red tape. Since the word can be equally applied to any race, heritage, or ethnicity based on their status, how can it be racist?
Actually, we have killed two birds with one stone. Since illegal describes the status of the immigrant whereas immigrant, or alien, describes the person, illegal is neither racist nor dehumanizing. The only time racism and dehumanization can be equated with immigration status is when someone with an axe to grind does so for political purposes.
Another issue Drop the I-Word raises is the legal accuracy of illegal. This, too, is misleading. We're not determining guilt in a civil or criminal sense, but in the court of public opinion where the burden of proof is miniscule. Even so, does illegal pronounce guilt without trial, or inhibit a person's ability to defend their rights? We can answer an unequivocal "no" to the first question and a conditional "yes" to the second.
I can't recall a single instance of widespread deportation without the benefit of a hearing. The closest example I can cite is the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Even then, Japanese-Americans weren't deported. Now, I'll admit that an illegal immigrant might have difficulty protecting basic liberties, such as reporting crimes committed against them. But the situation isn't unique to illegal immigrants; the same can be said of anyone engaged in an illegal activity. Such people naturally fly under the radar. Why? Because their actions are illegal, they recognize that fact, and they fear discovery.
If illegal is a slur, how should we identify immigrants who ignore both our borders and immigration laws? According to the campaign, "unauthorized" and "undocumented" are acceptable alternatives. But for how long? If the definition of illegal can be transformed into a racial, subhuman epithet, you can bet the farm the "u-words" won't be far behind.
Understand that Drop the I-Word isn't presently seeking a legislated speech code whereby offenders are held civilly or criminally accountable. Their goal is to convince journalists to drop the "i-word" from their lexicon. And frankly, the journalism community possesses the right to determine what words and phrases are acceptable in their writings and publications. But opponents of using "illegal" to describe illegal behavior should be intellectually honest about their attempt to change the word's definition to fit their political stance.
Dropping the "i-word" allows journalists to feel warm and fuzzy about their tolerance and open-mindedness. But they're ignoring the elephant in the room. If journalists won't admit the obvious fact that illegal immigrants have immigrated illegally, they have little to contribute toward solving the issue.
This article was first published in Creative Loafing - Charlotte.